Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Worship and Media Arts: Preistlygoth Preaching Chronicles XIII

As I wrote on Reconciler's blog recently I have been thinking about and playing with liturgy. I have also been doing a good bit of research on liturgy and worship. The use of Twitter in worship has been in the news which was brought to my attention by Tripp and Eugene Cho, has been posting on this as well. The particular ways the article highlights about how these initial attempts to use Twitter in worship is perhaps understandable given the context, and perhaps is no different that services where in prayer everyone speaks at once or everyone prays in tongues at once. I have been in these services, not something I find particularly worshipful. Yet I could see that it might fit certain charismatic and free church liturgical styles.

I don't think that the use of Twitter during a church service is always objectionable. There are points in worship where individual response may enrich worship: at Reconciler people respond and comment (from time to time) on a Scripture passage as it is read, and we do have an opportunity for people to respond and discuss the sermon. The use of Twitter could be an expansion or another way to encourage that sort of engagement. Though, I do wonder about focus and all. However,the question of the use of Twitter at least in the way highlighted in the above article first requires that a congregation have a multimedia projection system run by a computer. Which means some form of media art is probably being used or at least the congregation is accustomed to things projected on screens or walls during worship.

People could twitter all they wanted in church at Immanuel and Reconciler, and it wouldn't effect the services themselves all that much, because we have no means for those to be shared for all to see. There isn't any means of projection let alone a computer run projection system. For Easter 2008 Immanuel did bring in a liturgist whose focus is on media arts and we had art projected on a screen during the scripture readings of the Easter Vigil. It ended up for the three congregations to be an interesting novelty but the process and end result Eileen Crowley brought didn't quite work for us. I have never be clear as to why it didn't work, though there were a number of things at work. Members of Reconciler weren't all that interested, a few were opposed to the idea. So there ended up being little participation from Reconciler. I think this frustrated and flabbergasted Crowley a little bit because Reconciler's demographic "should" have been all into what she was doing and we weren't. Crowley did get involvement from a number of members of Immanuel some of whom were rarely involved in the planning of parts of worship services, One of whom this year offered up a series of photograph montage of sunsets that were used in publicity and on the web and displayed on the walls of the sanctuary at the end of lent and through Holy week. So, it is not that what Crawly brought and did with us had no impact. However, the media art,for the Vigil in the end simply was an addition that seemed unconnected to the liturgy, it did not illuminate what we were doing and we did not feel the need for it to communicate what the Vigil was about. We got along just fine this year without it. What was produced ended up being something to be viewed simply and I am not sure the form the media art took in the end encouraged participation in the liturgy itself, or even depended our sense of the readings.

Since January I have had the chance, and in a sense have been required, to play with Reconciler's liturgy. I have played with different liturgies, specifically the Lima liturgy, and am exploring rearranging the space to encourage and require more movement in the service itself. (I have written a reflection on this process here. As I have been thinking about our liturgy and our space and doing studies on the liturgy I began to think back on Eileen Crawly and "Media art". In theory and and for certain styles of worship Crowley's recommendations make sense. Crowley's work probably helps churches incorporate "media art" well in their worship. If you are already using projections following Eileen Crowley's suggestions and methodology would get you to move beyond merely projecting things on the wall. Also it seems to me that if you had gone far enough along to use canned "art" as backdrop to projecting lyrics on the screen the following Crowley would mean beauty might actually make its way into these projections. However, in terms of services like the Easter Vigil and the worship of Immanuel and Reconciler Crowleys method fails to follow her own advice because she keeps insisting that "media art" is something one inserts either poorly or well into the liturgy. When here principles claim that good media art emerges out of the liturgy and should support flow and illuminate the liturgical action of the congregation.

I think this contradiction is in part due to a failure to see projection technology essential to "media art" as a tool with analogy to the book, or at least the way the book has been used for liturgical purposes. In some sense computerized projections offers something analogous to what the liturgical books and prayer books offered: a means to give consistency and order to worship and to allow the people to follow and respond and participate. At Reconciler and Immanuel and many other places we have moved from the book sort of by each Sunday printing out most if not all of the service of worship in a booklet produced each Sunday using desk top publishing technology. However it seems to me that what we print out can just as well be projected and displayed on monitors or screens. Now this mere technological and practical use of projection does not fit the full definition of "media art", Yet if we think of our prayer books and hymnals etc. as also things that are designed to be aesthetically pleasing to use, and if we remember that liturgical books were once illuminated, and some hymnals and worship books do continue to use art to illuminate the text, then we can begin to see the possibility of "media art" as a non paper bound way to direct and allow people to enter and participate in the liturgy. Incidentally this is one of Crowley's principles of appropriate "media art" yet her language talks about "media art as something one inserts into the liturgy. this fails to see the analogy between "media art" and the function of liturgical books as the recording of the actions of the liturgy in an accessible and artistic form.

My thought is that if we began at the texts of the liturgy and projected them using the current technology, a type of illumination of that projected text could take place in the ways that Crowley recommends but it wouldn't be inserting anything but it would be emerging out of the liturgy itself and hopefully reflect the engagement of the congregation with the liturgy. Nothing would need to be changed except the technology used to let people know what was happening and when to say what and what to sing, so that we could do it together in corporate worship. In other words Media art should illuminate the liturgy: the speech and action of our worship. This would mean that we wouldn't be trying to copy or replicate what museums or rock shows do with media arts, but that it would be what the liturgy itself calls for. However, first step would be to get out of our books and project them on walls screens or from monitors in our worship spaces. Now that will also take some thinking, and may not work for every worship space since most of us who would take this approach to "media art" are not in churches where projection was envisioned as a use of the space, yet I bet with some creativity and funds (maybe not much more than a whole set of new hymnals and bibles etc., I don't know I haven't priced such things) my guess is that most spaces could accommodate some form of projection that would not obscure the architecture and so that all could see the projection. In this sense it isn't about contemporary or traditional or creating a multi-media worship experience that mimics rock shows or museum exhibits. We would add nothing to the liturgy just use a piece of technology to help us know where we are in the liturgy and to illuminate what we are doing at any point in time.